How do you pull off a musical in a pandemic? Just ask CA performers.

Avery Goldstein as Hope Cladwell

“Rain or shine or snow, we are going to give it a shot.”

That’s how Director Maclain Looper approached the Colorado Academy Upper School musical, Urinetown, in the days before the performances. (And in those days he did face rain, and shine, and snow—not to mention ongoing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

But Looper didn’t plan on the wind, which whipped up right before the Friday evening performance, leading the audience to speculate that a tornadic The Wizard of Oz might have been a more apt choice for the night. But just before the curtain (if there had been a curtain) went up, the wind died down. And the show did go on.

“The wind threw yet another curve ball at us,” says Sophomore Avery Goldstein, who played Hope Cladwell, in her first Upper School musical.

“There was a big ‘Oh, no!’ moment for us because we could hear the wind through the speakers,” adds Senior Czarina Yuffa, who has participated in theater productions since the middle of Seventh Grade. “But despite all the obstacles, we made this show come to life.”

Czarina Yuffa as Miss Pennywise

From ‘absolute insanity’ to ‘it still happened’

Looper described the process of putting Urinetown together as “absolute insanity.”

And can you blame him? The last Upper School musical, Les Misérables, was a complex undertaking, one of the final performances in the Froelicher Theatre before it was torn down to make way for the new Leach Center for the Performing Arts. Performers rehearsed more than 120 hours, tech theater students built elaborate scenery to take the audience back to revolutionary France, and a small orchestra provided the musical accompaniment.

But this spring, with the Froelicher Theatre torn down and the Leach Center still under construction, Looper’s cast literally did not have a roof over their heads—there was no venue for a performance.

Students also faced COVID-19 restrictions on singing indoors and limitations on rehearsal time. The cast auditioned online, prepared their parts at home alone, and rehearsed for just 16 hours over two very intense weekend days.

On a chilly late-April Friday evening, the performers took to the steps of Schotters Music Center, with fast-building storm clouds as their natural backdrop. The audience, dressed for a mid-January Broncos game, enjoyed the performances from Adirondack chairs on Stamper Commons.

“My parents said that being in the audience gave them a sense of normalcy,” says Senior Henry Chesley-Vogels, a veteran of Upper School musical performances. “And Urinetown may have been the perfect choice for this year because it’s quirky, weird, funny, and keeps the audience engaged—even in the cold, windy weather.”

“It was just amazing how many people showed up,” adds Goldstein. “Even people without children or siblings in the play came, and that just highlights how important theater is to the CA community.”

“The kids really, really wanted to do this, and we could not tell them ‘no,’” Looper says. “Every time I would think, ‘There is no way we can pull this off; it’s just impossible,’ somehow it still happened.”

Colby Lish playing Bobby Strong

Masks and madness

Like Les Miz, Urinetown follows the steps of a revolution—only this time it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world with an acute water shortage, leading to a government-enforced ban on private toilets.

“The citizens must use public amenities, regulated by a single malevolent company that profits by charging admission for one of humanity’s most basic needs,” Looper says. “Amid the people, a hero decides that he’s had enough and plans a revolution to lead them all to freedom!”

Colby Lish, the Senior who played the revolutionary hero Bobby Strong, says the show “exceeded his expectations.”

“As a singer, COVID canceled everything I was looking forward to this year,” Lish says. “So it was great to be back on stage and sing and sing. At the end of my number “Run Freedom Run,” there was just this sense of normalcy that came over me, and it was wonderful.”

Looper picked Urinetown in the spring of 2020 during lockdown and remote learning. In his mind, by the time the performances rolled around in spring of 2021, students could perform in the Campus Center while the Leach Center was built.

But those plans were changed by research showing that the virus that carries COVID-19 is aerosolized and can be spread by singing. “We knew early on that singing indoors was simply not going to happen,” Looper says. So Looper, along with Music Director Steve Scherer, Choreographer Melissa Zaremba, and Technical Director James Meehan, went into full force work-around, hatching the idea of an outdoor performance done concert style, with simple scenery, coming together in one “eight-day stretch of madness,” as Looper describes it.

Henry Chesley-Vogels playing Caldwell B. Cladwell

The performance took a hybrid approach to masks. Some members of the chorus performed with masks all the time, other members of the cast removed their masks for solo performance.

“We just had to constantly remind ourselves that this will not happen exactly the way it is in your brain,” Looper says. “But it will happen.”

“I’m consistently blown away by Mr. Looper’s work ethic,” Chesley-Vogels says. “This just showed how passionate he is about theater, and it will be a great memory from spring of my Senior year.”

Yuffa concurs. “What it tells me about CA is that throughout my Senior year, the school has tried to bring us the traditions as much as possible during COVID,” she says. “I’m grateful for the Senior year I had.”

With humor, Urinetown tells a story of the triumph of hope over fear. And come to think about it, what more appropriate message for this challenging year? “It was incredibly fun,” says Chesley-Vogels. “I can’t believe we pulled it off.”

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